A Time and Place for Empowerment
People who feel empowered at work usually demonstrate stronger job performance, satisfaction, and commitment. Empowerment can lead to increased creativity and quality of work. Recent literature has been full of books on how to empower your employees. But empowerment does not always work; there are a time and a place for it. And you can’t talk about empowerment without talking about leadership. If empowerment is about employees being on the receiving end of a ‘gift’, there must be a ‘giver’. This is usually the conclusion of empowerment: ‘it must come from the top down’.
The research found that empowerment works on two levels. Firstly, empowerment in day-to-day routines mainly meant being delegated tasks from your superiors, being asked for input and encouraged to make autonomous decisions. Being given the opportunity to make a fundamental difference to what’s going on at work and eventually affect the bottom line of the company, functions as a boost of commitment from the company to the employee and vice versa. Employees would show their loyalty by sharing more, bringing ideas to the table which generally would have been kept to themselves and working longer. It comes down to either feeling like ‘just a cog in the machine’ to feeling like a ‘mover and shaker’ in the company.
Secondly, there is a more profound psychological effect of trust that plays a role. Employees more readily will generate trust with a leader who they feel empowers them. Being given additional responsibilities can be construed as just passing work along. Feeling empowered means that leadership is delegating tasks because there is trust but also the acknowledgement that the employee will learn and grow. This cuts into the very nature of someone’s comfort & learning zone balance. If you give an employee the chance to learn something new, they will do so more willingly if they feel supported and rewarded if they fail or succeed.
However, empowerment is not merely delegating challenging tasks to employees and hope for the best. Consider which employers benefit the most from empowerment. Research has shown that it is not more established and experienced employees, but lesser experienced and mostly younger ones who will take the opportunity of empowerment to positive effect. It could be that more experienced employees ‘like the way things are done’ or have some inertia to change, but most likely lesser qualified employees are more open for opportunities. This can lead to resentment and internal frictions that need to be managed.
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Also, consider if employees have the right knowledge and tools for empowerment. Do you allow time for creativity and challenging the status quo? Do you need to send employees on training courses? All this comes at a cost for the business. It is also vital you ensure you explicitly underline any employee’s increased remit, either via a face-to-face conversation or, more clearly, within the employee’s job specification. You can supply an employee with all the tools to be empowered, but if you haven’t given them an actual nudge to change things, nothing will happen. Some roles such as procurement and business process redesign roles imply the status quo challenging aspect of their work, but specialists in this field are hard to find. Consider using procurement job recruitment for the former.
Empowerment can do great things for your business, with more committed and creative employees as a result. However, it also requires commitment from the company itself, potentially internal frictions, and the requirement that empowerment needs to be supported and explicit. If you consider there is a time and a place for everything, empowerment can be a powerful business management tool.
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